Novice, veteran scientists enjoy a mingling of minds at annual fair

Yara Hosny and Ewelina Zambrzycka shared a taste for orange juice and a knack for science, and the same ambition, too. “She wanted to do the science fair; I wanted to do the science fair,” Hosny said. “So we decided, ‘Why not work together?’”

In an experiment that became one of 250 projects from local public schools to reach the final stage of the 2012 New Haven Science Fair, the two Hill Regional Career High School students showed that OJ’s famously high dose of vitamin C doesn’t last long once the cap comes off.

“If you want the most vitamin C, drink the orange juice in the first week,” Zambrzycka said at the fair, which culminated in mid-May with a public display and awards ceremony at Yale. See the full list of this year’s winners.

Discovery thrills Zambrzycka, and it’s her type of active curiosity that science fair organizers aim to nourish while channeling it to a purpose.

“I would like them to know: A, that you can have a good time doing problem solving,” said Jack Crane, a Yale graduate and former research director for Olin Corp. who co-founded the fair in the mid-1990s. “And B, how to actually do problem solving. The scientific method is a problem solving method.”

For several days in mid-May, the floor of University Commons at Grove and College Streets offered an extravaganza of questions asked, hypotheses tested, and theories offered, dissected, accepted, and rejected. About 700 New Haven public school children — as young as kindergarteners and old as high school seniors — explained and defended their work to scores of roving volunteer judges. In the months leading up to the fair, an estimated 8,000 students from nearly all 43 New Haven public school participated.

As the fair has grown — seven schools were part of the first fair, nearly 20 years ago — students’ confidence has deepened, says Crane, who attributes this change to the practice students get at preliminary fairs held in the individual schools. “Now,” he says amid a happy babble at Commons, “90 percent of the students will face you eyeball-to-eyeball.”

This year’s crop of experimentalists probed many mysteries of the natural world, including human memory; music’s influence on plant growth; the mechanics of the human knee; ants’ response to temperature change; and hotdog mummification using household chemicals, to name a very few.

Many poster presentations reflected an awareness of the power of creative marketing. Catchy project titles included “Beethoven & the Bean Stalk,” “A Knee to Know Basis,” and “A Fungus Among Us.”

The intellectual work of designing, performing, evaluating, and presenting scientific experiments is a central aspect of the fair, which in 2012 received primary financial support from Yale, the New Haven Public Schools, The Watershed Fund, Pfizer, and Covidien.

Another key aspect is the mingling of minds. “They get to meet real honest-to-gosh scientists,” said Cathy Van Dyke, associate master at Saybrook College and a member of the fair’s steering committee.

The fair’s corps of judges, mentors, and other volunteers — about 160 in all — includes research scientists and advanced students from Yale, Southern Connecticut State University, and the University of New Haven, as well as current and former personnel from science-related industries. Three different judges visit each of the 250 projects presented at Commons to speak with the students who worked on them, said Van Dyke.

Among the judges this year was Chinedum Osuji, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale. As a youth in Trinidad, he never went to a science fair — there were none to go to, he said. But since joining the Yale faculty five years ago, he’s been a stalwart science fair volunteer, as mentor or judge. “It’s part of being a good citizen in the scientific community,” he says.

Hundreds of Yale people act on this belief annually through the University’s diverse portfolio of year-round science outreach programs, known as Pathways to Science. The New Haven Science Fair is among the biggest and most festive.

“For Yale University, the New Haven Science Fair is ‘all hands on deck,’” said Claudia Merson, Yale’s director of public school partnerships. “Pre-college science education is a high priority for the University.”

Science and engineering pervade society ever more, and this requires not only a supply of scientists, but also a science-literate workforce, says Richard Therrien, K-12 supervisor of science for the New Haven Public Schools. Doing science and meeting researchers through science fairs can promote interest in related careers at all levels of complexity, he adds, noting that a solid grounding in science and math are helpful to future medical technicians and skilled manufacturing workers, not just future researchers. “It’s upon us to get the students ready for that,” he says. “The fact that somebody has worked with them encourages them to go on.”

Lea Winter appears headed for a life of deep science. The rising Yale sophomore spent the early days of her summer break evaluating science fair entries at Commons. A year earlier, she had been a Wilbur Cross High School student presenting her own research at the fair. Fondly she recalled the mentor who supplied encouragement and resources, not least a simple blank lab notebook. “I carried that around with me all the time,” she said.

Winter will spend most of this summer in Israel, as part of a Yale contingent conducting research at the Weizmann Institute of Science. With that adventure still before her, she says she’s already got an eye on next May, when she’ll once again be reviewing science fair entries at University Commons. “It was transformative for me,” she said.

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